Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
“Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto raises for the first time the ghastly idea that there are pieces of music that one can hear stinking… [the finale] transports us into the brutish grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths and smell cheap liquor.” This politically incorrect assessment comes from the pen of the dean of nineteenth century music critics, Eduard Hanslick, reviewing the Concerto’s Vienna premiere.
Why did the first performance take place in Vienna and not St. Petersburg? It is difficult to believe that this Concerto, probably the most popular in the literature, was declared to contain passages that were “almost impossible to play” by its first dedicatee, the famed violinist and violin teacher Leopold Auer, concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. Completed in 1878, it had to wait for three years for its premiere in Vienna where Hanslick was not alone in his opinion.
What Hanslick and the other critics disliked most is what makes the Concerto so appealing today: its athletic energy, unabashed romanticism and rousing Slavic finale. Without diminishing our own enjoyment of the Concerto, attempting to hear it with the ears of its first audience is a fascinating exercise in cultural relativity. First of all, consider the sheer difficulty of the piece. What defeated Russia’s leading violin virtuoso is the stuff teenage prodigies cut their teeth on at Juilliard and Curtis, practicing the killer bits ad nauseam until they get it right or find some other career.
Then there’s the fact that there was no love lost between the two great nineteenth-century imperial behemoths, Russia and Austria-Hungary, who continued to slug it out until the end of World War I. That Tchaikovsky disliked Johannes Brahms, Hanslick’s favorite composer, probably also added fuel to the fire.
At the time of the Concerto’s inception, Tchaikovsky was just emerging from under the black cloud of a disastrous marriage to an emotionally unstable woman who had threatened suicide if he refused to marry. The marriage was also undertaken to quash rumors about his homosexuality; it ended two weeks later with his attempted suicide, although they were never legally divorced. The vibrant energy of the Concerto, however, seems to have been inspired by the visit of Josif Kotek, a young violinist, pupil and protégé who managed to raise the composer’s spirits and helped him with the Concerto, giving advice on technical matters.
The Concerto opens with a brief, gentle introduction with motivic germ of the main theme. & After some virtuosic fireworks, the emerging second theme is surprisingly similar in mood to the first. The development, full of technical acrobatics, leads into the very difficult cadenza that the composer wrote himself.
The current slow movement was Tchaikovsky’s second try; he discarded his first attempt, eventually publishing it separately as a violin and piano piece, Méditation, Op. 42, no. 3. The second version opens with a gentle melancholy song on the woodwinds that pervades the movement. The violin enters with an equally wistful counter-melody that renders the seamless merge into the raucous Final such a surprise. Hanslick’s appraisal of the movement: “The adagio with its gentle Slav melancholy [note the stereotyping] is well on its way to reconciling us and winning us over.”
It is the unabashed use of Russian peasant dance rhythms in the third movement that so upset Vienna’s critics was, even at the time, becoming a signature of much Russian orchestral music. Another peculiar bit that must have raised a few Viennese eyebrows is the spectacular cadenza that follows immediately on the fiery orchestral introduction & and leads right into the main theme. This quick-footed dance demands of the soloist enormous agility and rhythmic control. After a second dance that ramps up on speed like a typical Cossack trepak, there follows another slower lyrical section introduced by solo oboe and taken up by clarinet, bassoon and finally the violin. The Concerto concludes, of course, with flash and flamboyance.
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
Volumes have been written about Dmitry Shostakovich and his ambivalent relationship with the Soviet regime. Much of this writing is based on after-the-fact statements whose authenticity and veracity is often difficult to verify. What is clear is that the composer was a true son of the Russian Revolution and, as teenager, a true believer. But in his late 20s he became caught up in the Stalinist nightmare.
Shostakovich’s roller coaster ride from Soviet adulation to denunciation began in January 1936 when an article appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda severely criticizing his successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. The result was that, upon the order of the government, the opera – as well as the rest of the composer’s music – was withdrawn from the stage and the concert hall. For the first of many times Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood withdrawn and his life in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he would sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up they would not disturb the rest of the family.
Shostakovich’s response was to go in two directions. Because of his fame both at home and abroad, the government was willing to give him the chance to earn a living composing music for propaganda films and politically correct spectacles. To satisfy his own creative energy, he composed works “for the drawer.” Some of his greatest and most personal works did not see the light of day until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
The Fifth Symphony was the composer’s attempt to rehabilitate himself as a serious artist in the eyes of the authorities after the Lady Macbeth debacle. How it did so is an example of how politicized art operates. The chromatic, dissonant Symphony was certainly not in line with the cultural commissars’ requirement for cheerful, uplifting music, and the wild audience enthusiasm at the 1937 premieres – both in Moscow and in Leningrad – made the Soviet bureaucracy suspicious. They were convinced that the enthusiastic reception had been organized by Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues; they grilled the conductors and musicians looking for evidence for a conspiracy. It took a special performance for the apparatchiks alone to finally convince them to give the Symphony the official seal of approval.
The Symphony opens with a broad theme, a constant presence underlying a melancholy counter-theme in the upper strings. These two themes, already brooding at the outset, pass through a violent transformation during the course of the movement. They ultimately do battle with a new haunting melody also in the upper strings, a response to the harsh opening statement. The composer slowly ratchets up the hushed tension, gradually adding other instruments, a calm before the storm. More than halfway through the movement, clouds appear on the horizon with the trombones blaring out the first string theme with an increase in tempo and dynamics until the shrieking violins introduce it as a violent march with full brass and snare drums. The opening theme also reappears, transformed in ever more threatening terms. And then the storm suddenly passes. Solos based on the lyrical string theme, first in a duet for solo flute and horn, then the rest of the upper winds establish a tentative tranquility. The movement concludes with a gentle glockenspiel solo.
The short Scherzo is a rhythmically lopsided waltz evoking everything from Viennese ballrooms to music boxes. The scherzo proper gradually evolves from a spiky unsingable introduction into a more cohesive melody answered by outbursts from the brass. The Trio includes gentle solos for violin, flute, clarinet and bassoon. Each repeat features a different orchestration. The erratic shifts in dynamics suggest a kind of musical satire that emerged more overtly and with greater bitterness in the composer’s later works. According to Solomon Volkov in his controversial biography Testimony, the composer told him that the movement depicts the brutality of the regime. Given the Viennese overtones and the many lightly orchestrated pianissimo passages, it is one of those statements that raise more questions than answers.
The Largo is a somber outpouring that probably best reflects the composer’s mood during those terrible years – a gentle melody reminiscent of Bach. Melancholy solos for flute and especially the oboe punctuate the long lament. As in the first movement, the tension slowly builds, until it reaches a climax beginning with a xylophone and violin theme accompanied by a loud tremolo in the rest of the strings. The remainder of the movement is a varied reprise of the opening, a gradual emotional cooling down, but ever somber. The solo harp closes the movement with a repeat of the oboe solo melody – but resolves its inherent tension.
The Finale is a military quick march, blaring in the approved “Socialist Realism” style. There are two principal themes, which both undergo significant transformations in mood, from strident militarism to pensive melancholy. & The moments of shrieking ostinato passages in the violins and rising chromaticism, as well as the somber middle section belie the triumphal themes. It is as if Shostakovich is surveying his environment (symbolized by the two themes) at the beginning of the movement, grimly pondering it in the slow middle section & and, in the final measures, fatalistically accepting it. Later, he put an unflattering interpretation on this movement, equating it with a forced march, the coerced and highly organized Soviet “spontaneous outpouring” in mass demonstrations.
For the following ten years Shostakovich was able to compose relatively undisturbed. But in 1948 the official axe fell again; it was only with Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent temporary cultural thaw that his music was heard again and his “good name” restored in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Shostakovich’s periodic bending to the official Soviet will did not sit well with the academic serialist composers of the West, who denigrated his work until a parallel “cultural thaw” in the West relaxed the stranglehold of rigid atonal music.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016